As it did last year at the Under Radar Festival, the Chicago-based theater company with the completely apt name of Manual Cinema is charming the audience at the Public Theater by presenting a kind of do-it-yourself silent film, and simultaneously showing us how the film is being made. We once again see a marvel of ingenuity, with the musicians and sound effects people and animators and puppeteers and shadow puppets — and human actors who are presented as shadow puppets — rushing around live on stage to produce the effects on the screen.
Last year, though, the show, Lula Del Ray, was an original story of a girl growing up in a trailer park in the desert who longs to make it in the big city. This year’s production is longer, more ambitious…and more familiar.
I think I can speak without fear of contradiction that the world did not need another version of Frankenstein. Still, Manual Cinema attempts to inject some freshness into the story, although the results are occasionally overcomplicated and less than completely clear. The show begins with a framing device: A sea captain writing to his sister (we read the letter) about encountering a strange and haggard man in the Arctic. That would be Victor Frankenstein, who revealed (as the sea captain tells his sister) that he has spent his life in search of the creature he created and let loose on the world. We then switch to another framing device: We see Mary Shelley socializing with her husband the poet Percy Shelley, then having a nightmare, and then sitting at her writing desk with a quill pen, presumably writing “Frankenstein,” her novel. “After days of labor,” Mary is quoted as saying on one of those silent film caption cards, “I became capable of bestowing animation on lifeless matter.” Thus is established an analogy between Frankenstein’s creature and Mary Shelley’s art – and, by extension, the marvelous art of Manual Cinema, which literally animates the tale. There is the lightning and thunder and electric zapping we forever associate with Frankenstein. But there are also close-ups of the cells within the creature as it comes to life, and stark long shots of a tiny lone figure on an endless barren landscape. That we see how they create these effects doesn’t make them less stunning — it makes them more so.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
By Manual Cinema
Adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley
Concept by Drew Dir
Devised by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, andJulia VanArsdale Miller
Original music composed by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman
Storyboarder: Drew Dir
Puppet Designer: Drew Dir and Lizi Breit
Video and Set Designer: Davonte Johnson
Costume Designer: Mieka van der Ploeg
Lighting Designer: Claire Chrzan
Sound Designer: Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter
Sound Engineer: Mike Usrey
Stage Manager: Shelby Glasgow
Video Mixing and Live Sound Effects: Shelby Glasgow(Jan. 3-7) and Kyle Vegter (Jan. 10-12)
Puppeteers: Sarah Fornace (Victor Frankenstein, Mary Shelley) Julia VanArsdale Miller (The Creature, Elizabeth Frankenstein) Leah Casey (Caroline Frankenstein, Percy Shelley, Vocals) Sara Sawicki(Alphonse Frankenstein, Lord Byron) Myra Su(Ensemble) Lizi Breit (Ensemble Understudy Jan. 5&6)
Musicians: Zachary Good (clarinets and aux percussion), Deidre Huckabay (flutes, aux percussion, piano), Lia Kohl (cello, aux percussion, vocals), Peter Ferry (percussion)
Running time: 97 minutes, no intermission
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is on stage through January 12th. It is currently sold out, but “Please check back later as additional tickets may become available at a later date.”